Taking Issue with Yvonne Klein’s Review of The Beggar’s Opera

I’ve had some interesting back-and-forth with  Yvonne Klein over the past 24 hours. I posted parts of her recent on-line review of The Beggar’s Opera yesterday.  It’s the first really negative review that TBO has received, but I think what bothered me the most about it was the following: 

“Turning to taxi-drivers to convey a sense of how things are is a standard journalist’s dodge when time is too short for real research, but it has its problems in a novel.”

“…Havana is seen to seethe with prostitutes, beggars, and corruption at every level. To what degree this is in fact the case is unclear – the sole claim to direct knowledge of the country that Peggy Blair announces is that she and her daughter spent the Christmas holidays there six years ago.” (emphasis added)

The clear implication is that I didn’t do any “real” research into conditions in Cuba.

Now I know you’re not supposed to engage with reviewers who negatively review your work, but I emailed Ms. Klein  to ask if she would be so kind as to include a reference to the fact that the book was shortlisted for the 2010 Debut Dagger. She had included this information in other reviews, eg. her review of D.J. McIntosh’s Witch of Babylon.

When she did, I thanked her.  I also pointed out that I have  an LLD, which is a doctorate in law. (Yes, it’s Dr. Blair, although I try to keep that close, because if people think you’re a doctor, they start asking you for medical advice.) In my case, my doctorate is in legal history, which requires combining historical, anthropological, and sociological research with law.

In 1999, my LLM thesis received the Prize of Excellence from the Association of Quebec Law Professors for the quality of my research. In fact, I taught a course in Legal Research to graduate law students at the University of Ottawa in 2001-2002. 

Of course I researched conditions in Cuba.

Ms. Klein then responded that she wasn’t questioning my portrayal of the conditions in Cuba but the way I’d presented them.  She added that the only information she had about me was from the PR package that came with the book, although she had looked me up  and couldn’t find anything else.

Now I don’t know where Ms. Klein looked, but there is a Wikipedia entry that comes up as soon as you Google me. It actually outlines my background with a reasonable degree of accuracy. I’m also listed in The Canadian Who’s Who (a fact which is mentioned on the jacket cover for TBO).  That publication details all my degrees and peer-reviewed articles (all 28 of them) as well as my teaching experience in matters related to research.

Now Ms. Klein seems very nice. I think she was trying to be helpful in providing feedback to a debut author, and I don’t disagree with her review generally. But I didn’t appreciate her comments about my research, because I thought they were unfair, particularly coming from a reviewer who had been an academic herself. 

I also disagree with her conclusion that the book could have benefitted from better editing.

I had great editors: agent Peter Robinson (UK), Adrienne Kerr (Penguin) and Alex Schultz (formerly of HarperCollins). But even the best editor in the world can’t persuade a stubborn author to make changes she doesn’t want to make. Any errors or flaws that remain in that novel have nothing to do with them,  and everything to do with me.

Update: Interesting question posed by a colleague at work. She is a visual artist and asked, “what difference does it make whether you researched Cuba or not?” As far as she is concerned, one need not do any research at all to create something that is deeply imagined — it is not, as she points out, an academic thesis. What do you think?

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14 Responses to Taking Issue with Yvonne Klein’s Review of The Beggar’s Opera

  1. Too funny–I’ve spent considerable time in Cuba over the past few years and the taxi driver scenes seemed among the most authentic in the book. More importantly, they are a very credible way for your character to get information about the country. After all, he’s there on vacation, in the hopes of salvaging his marriage, not researching a PhD dissertation.

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  2. I don’t agree with the prevailing wisdom that you shouldn’t engage with reviewers who give you a negative review especially when — as in your case — there’s good reason to take exception to what is said. Why should an author, who lives by words, sit in silence and let someone else have the last one?

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    • Peggy Blair says:

      I’ve actually engaged with several of them. I asked one to remove a plot spoiler; she was mortified to realize that she had inadvertently given away an important twist and did so quickly. Another had several basic facts wrong about how I came to be published and I contacted him so that his article would be accurate. In no case did I take issue with the review itself. Reviewers can only review the books they read, which are not necessarily the books we write. With this review, once again, I take no issue with the review itself but rather with the reviewer’s assumptions.

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  3. Anne Devereux says:

    Very fairly and ethically tackled, Peggy. Kudos to you.

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  4. I think you were perfectly in the right to contact the reviewer and confront the content of their synopsis. If you feel the reviewer was lazy and overlooked your content with complete disregard for your credentials, you absolutely should call them out.

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  5. Julz says:

    This was a great post. I agree that you can’t just let bad reviews sit when they’re obviously incorrect. You handled it with tact and poise and for that I tip my hat to you. Thanks for the great post, it was great to read!

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  6. Tasneem says:

    You’re right, Peggy. Suggesting you didn’t do your research is unfair. Taxi drivers talking about conditions in a country is, to my mind, a narrative tool. What would the reviewer suggest? The omniscient narrator lecture the reader about the intricacies of Cuban politics? You’re right, too, that it is unfair to criticize the editors. Good on you for calling her out. I’m not sure I’d have the guts to even read through negative reviews of my book. 🙂

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    • Peggy Blair says:

      Thanks Tasneem. I think reviewers sometimes think “review” means “criticism,” in the same way that academics often think that original thinking requires attacking everyone else’s work on a given subject. I don’t mind my book being criticized, but I did think this was a bit over the line.

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  7. brian llwyd says:

    I was really impressed with how accurately you reflected the place as well as the police procedure down there. You were much less critical of the failures there than I am.
    I found very few errors or inaccuracies and none that indicated shortcuts.

    It is fairly easy for a gringo to get internet access though at least since the mid-oughties – all the western hotels have a couple for their guests and there is a pay per use place south on Obispo near the old Central bank building. Locals are restricted (Yoani Sanchez does her blog posts on a memory stick and gets friends to upload or send her stories for posting).

    But this is no reason for a poor review

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    • Peggy Blair says:

      Thanks, Brian. Of course, all Celia knows is that she can’t get Internet access in her hotel; it’s the ever helpful doorman who tells her she has to use his cousin (for a big price, of course). I don’t know what Ms. Klein’s issue was, to be honest — strikes me that to write a book like this, you have to research almost everything. And then, as with any creative work, you decide what to keep and what to jettison in the name of art. Appreciated the rating on Goodreads, thanks!

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